Defining Moments in Video Game History: A Timeline
We don’t need the Animus from the “Assassin’s Creed” series to recount the gaming industry’s history. Most of it has played out within many Americans’ lifetimes.
Though today’s games like “Candy Crush” and “Call of Duty” captivate us through our phones and TVs, the industry’s origins are fairly humble—and don’t even involve video, strange as it may seem.
The business has come a long way, too.
Modern gaming, as we know it, really didn’t get kick off until the late 1980s. But before even that, the business was widely experimental, though a few commercial breakthroughs ultimately brought gaming to the masses.
Today, the industry makes more money than other stalwarts of the entertainment sector, including music and movies. And its appetite has yet to be satiated.
As of 2018, the industry is expected to drive as much as $170 billion in revenue, according to industry analysts. By 2022, revenues could balloon to as much as $235 billion.
With some help from comedian and podcaster Brian McGuinness of the Playable Characters podcast, here are some of the defining moments in video game history.
The early years
1940 – The first “video game”
The first video game debuts at the World’s Fair in New York. Edward U. Condon invents a computer that plays a game, “Nim”, against human competitors. The computer won 90% of the time.
1967 – Video games meet television
Ralph Baer conceives and builds the “Brown Box”, a prototype video game console that allowed users to play on TV screens.
1972 – The Magnavox Odyssey launches
The Magnavox Odyssey hits shelves, allowing gamers to take a console home for the first time. It’s based on Baer’s “Brown Box”.
The same year the Odyssey goes on sale, video game maker Atari launches “Pong”, and video game mania takes hold.
1977 – Atari’s Video Computer System
Atari releases its Video Computer System, or the Atari 2600. It’s the precursor to modern consoles, and features classic games like “Space Invaders”, “Donkey Kong”, and “Frogger”.
1983 – Saturation of the market, and the tragedy of E.T.
The dam finally breaks when “E.T.”—a game based on the movie—is released for the Atari 2600. Widely considered the worst game ever made, the company ended up burying thousands of the game cartridges in the New Mexico desert.
“It was so bad,” said McGuinness. “The market was so saturated at that point that when this game came out, people were like ‘we’re done with video games.’”
Fun fact: In 2015, curious diggers found the trove of buried Atari 2600 games, including “Pac-Man,” “Ms. Pac-Man,” “Breakout,” “Star Raiders,” “Pele’s Soccer,” and “Centipede.” The games were auctioned off on eBay for over $100K.
The industry gets a foothold
1985 – The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) launches
The NES launches, reigniting consumer passion and hooking millions of children on the adrenaline rush that accompanies the sad realization that the princess is in another castle.
Nintendo, a company originally founded in Japan as a playing card company during the late 1880s, got into the video game business in the 1970s and revolutionized the industry with NES. NES games were graphically superior to their predecessors, and the extra memory allowed for multiple levels and storytelling.
Legends are born
Numerous iconic games are produced for the NES, including “Super Mario Bros.”, “The Legend of Zelda”, “Final Fantasy”, and more. Sequels and spin-offs of these games are still produced today.
1988 – Gaming meets the real world
While games, in the 1980s, mostly starred fictitious characters and fantasy settings, developers started looking to the real world for new series.
One example, the “Madden” football series—named after legendary NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden—has gone on to become one of the best-selling and longest-running franchises in America.
But Madden wasn’t convinced at first. In fact, he demanded that the game’s quality be top-notch, or he wouldn’t sign on.
“Fck that and fck you people. Either we do it fckin’ right or we don’t fckin’ do it at all,” he reportedly told the developer at the time.
It turned out to be a warning shot across the bow for the industry: It’s time to grow up.
1989 – Sega Genesis launches
The next generation of consoles launched in 1989, when Japan-based game company Sega released the Genesis. This introduced us to another classic character: “Sonic the Hedgehog”. Sonic was seen as a more mature counterpart to Mario, helping win over older gamers.
“The Genesis was like, “we’re the cool kids”. Nintendo was just for babies and kids,” McGuinness says of the early rivalry between Sega and Nintendo.
In 1991, the competing Super Nintendo (SNES) was released.
And gaming, at this time, did take a turn toward a more adult audience.
Nintendo releases the Game Boy during the summer of 1989, allowing early players to take their gaming on the road.
1992/1993 – Blood
A staple of modern gaming, violence took the spotlight in the early 1990s. Fighting games and shooters like “Mortal Kombat” and “Doom” hit the market, and with their gore and violent imagery, ushered in the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, an industry group that rates video games for age appropriateness and content.
Though many tend to associate gaming with consoles, PC gaming also took off during this time as processing power became cheaper and more accessible. This bred the self-appointed “master race” of PC gamers, as they commonly refer to themselves today.
The tech grows up
1992 – Nintendo and Sony break up
The late 80s and early 90s also saw a courtship between Nintendo and Sony, which were working together on an upgrade to the SNES that would allow it to play CD-based games rather than cartridges.
Sony, wanting to get into the gaming market, teamed up with Nintendo in an effort to gain a foothold in the industry.
That relationship, however, would falter when Sony decided to pursue its own console, believing that Nintendo was stalling in an attempt to keep the company out of the market. As a result, Nintendo would go on to release the Nintendo 64 in 1996, while Sony would release their own industry-altering console in 1994.
1994 – The PlayStation is born
The release of the Sony PlayStation was another generation-defining shift in gaming. The platform brought gaming into a new technological era.
CD-based games could store massive amounts of data compared to cartridges, allowing developers to create longer, more sophisticated games. Classics like “Final Fantasy VII”, “Resident Evil”, and “Metal Gear Solid” exemplified the console’s then-newborn abilities.
“[The PlayStation] changed everything,” says McGuinness. “It had CDs, and 3D textures, and polygons and all that cool stuff.”
The console would sell more than 100 million units and eventually be phased out by Sony for the PlayStation 2 in 2000, then the PlayStation 3 in 2006, and the PlayStation 4 in 2013.
1999 – The dawn of online gaming
Sega, after a series of failed products (Sega CD, Sega Saturn), released another console — the Dreamcast. While it wouldn’t go on to be a hit, the Dreamcast featured another first: It allowed for online gameplay.
2001 – Microsoft jumps in
In 2001, Microsoft decided to get into the gaming industry, launching its own console, the Xbox. The original Xbox (predecessor to the Xbox 360 and Xbox One) upped the ante in the console wars, pushing out companies like Sega and pitting Microsoft against stalwarts Nintendo and Sony.
The Xbox also brought us one of the most popular game franchises of all time: “Halo: Combat Evolved”.
Halo helped reinvent the shooter genre and popularize online and multiplayer gameplay. It also helped solidify the gaming industry as a commercial juggernaut.
2003 – PC players get Steamy
Steam, a distribution platform, launched for PC gamers in 2003, modernizing gaming outside of the big consoles.
The era of big-budget gaming
As games like “Halo” gained massive followings—and huge production budgets—revenues started to grow and the industry hit its stride. Today, the cost to create an AAA game (similar to a blockbuster movie title) can be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Grand Theft Auto V”, for example, reportedly cost more than $250 million to make. “Destiny”, a first-person shooter originally released in 2014, had a budget rumored to be $500 million.
And other big-name, big-budget games started hitting the market. “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare” came out in 2007, becoming “Halo’s” main competitor in the shooter space.
Other high-end titles from this era include “Assassin’s Creed”, “God of War”, the “Grand Theft Auto” series, and “Half-Life”.
2006 – Get active
Nintendo took things in a different direction than Sony and Microsoft, launching the Wii console in 2006. The Wii innovated by incorporating movement into gameplay, getting people off of the couch with its new control scheme.
The Wii was popular, and opened the industry even further to people who wouldn’t traditionally consider themselves “gamers”. And Sony and Microsoft followed suit, releasing their own movement-based devices, the Move, and the Kinect.
2004-2009 – Gaming spreads
Outside of consoles, PC gaming fostered growth for massively multiplayer role-playing games (MMORPGs), including “World of Warcraft”. These games allow thousands of players to play at once, interacting with each other and even cultivate their own insulated economies.
2009 – present – Mobile games
Mobile gaming also started taking hold with the release and popularization of social and phone-based games like “Farmville” and “Angry Birds”. Later mobile games would start driving massive revenues, like “Clash of Clans”, “Mobile Strike” and “Candy Crush”.
2010 – present – eSports
Started in the early 1990s, eSports has exploded in popularity. In eSports, professional players compete against each other in popular games like “DOTA 2”, “League of Legends”, and “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive”. Like other sports leagues, eSport athletes earn big salaries from sponsors and spectators who pay to watch.
It’s a growing element of the industry that’s expected to earn as much as $1.5 billion by 2020, according to industry reports.
The current state of the industry
Realism and soaring revenues
Over the last decade, the gaming industry has continued to gain momentum. Games became bigger, more detailed, and vastly more expensive to produce. Studios are continuing to spend hundreds of millions to produce games like “Grand Theft Auto V” and “Destiny”, and the profits for successful games tally in the billions.
“These games now, like ‘Uncharted’ or ‘God of War’, their stories are ridiculous. They have scripts that are longer than movies,” McGuinness says, adding that many last between 15 and 20 hours.
“They’re stories, they’re emotional and exciting”, McGuinness says.
Games have become bigger than ever. In fact, “Grand Theft Auto V” has made more than $6 billion, according to reports, making it the most valuable entertainment title in history.
The slate of upcoming releases over the next few years could produce games that eclipse that number. An eventual “Grand Theft Auto VI”, for example, could top it predecessor, and future titles in the “Halo” and “Call of Duty” franchises will also continue to have gamers reaching for their wallets.
What’s next for the gaming industry? It appears that the next big innovation appears to be virtual reality, or VR gaming, which has been attempted before by companies like Nintendo. The company released the Virtual Boy console in 1995, which was considered by most to be a flop.
Consoles also continue to improve, and now incorporate far more than just game-playing abilities. They’ve evolved into entertainment hubs, allowing you to watch live TV, access applications to watch movies, and even access your social media accounts.
Gaming has clearly grown far beyond turtle-stomping plumbers and Dig Dug. The industry’s ever-expanding reach continues to draw in new fans and converts.